I spent most of the last two days in my first meeting of Archbishops’ Council. I think I am still processing the experience, not least because to what one person called ‘institutional vertigo’—it feels a little surreal to be considering questions of national and strategic importance, when there are few other places to experience this. I was also very impressed with the range, experience and qualities of the other people on the Council (whether the feeling was mutual I didn’t dare ask!), and I think it will be fascinating to see the way that relationships develop.
As a new member of the Council, it became evident to me that things hadn’t always worked well up till now, both in the way the Council members related to one another and the way the Council had related to other groups in the Church. So, as a change to the way it does its business, we spent the first day looking at what the Council is for, what different people bring in terms of gifts, skills and experience, and what commitments we want to make in terms of the way we relate to one another and the way we do business. I think this flowed from Justin Welby’s conviction that the quality of relationships is crucial in determining how effective a group will be, even in making supposedly ‘objective’ decisions about strategy, finance and the like—and how much more so when we are a group of Christians together. It is the kind of exercise that I think any PCC would benefit from.
But even as we met, people were telling me that the Council has ‘too much power’, that certain people were ‘pushing their agenda’ and that ‘the Council will be taking over things that should be done by Synod’. I was aware of the deep suspicion that was around when the Council was first set up at the end of the 1990s, and I have a feeling that even Justin himself was unsure what the Council was for when he first came into office.
In order to evaluate whether this is the case, there are several things to consider. The first is the constitution of the Council itself the details of which are available on the Church’s website.
The objects of the Council under the National Institutions Measure 1998 are to ‘co-ordinate, promote, aid and further the work and mission of the Church of England’. The Council seeks to do this by:
- giving a clear strategic sense of direction to the national work of the Church of England, within an overall vision set by the House of Bishops and informed by an understanding of the Church’s opportunities, needs and resources;
- encouraging and resourcing the Church in parishes and dioceses;
- promoting close collaborative working between the Church’s national bodies, including through the management of a number of common services (Communications, Human Resources, IT etc);
- supporting the Archbishops with their diverse ministries and responsibilities; and
- engaging confidently with Government and other bodies.
The goals of its activity are aligned with the three strategic priorities of
- contributing to the common good;
- promoting the spiritual and numerical growth of the Church;
- seeking to re-imagine, reshape and re-energise lay and ordained ministry.
What is fascinating is then to read the areas of its work. It is expressed in a slightly shorter form in the Annual Report than on the website, but the language is instructive.
- distributing funds received from the Church Commissioners to support ministry and mission in Church of England dioceses;
- resourcing the selection and training of people to carry out public ministry, both lay and ordained;
- promoting and encouraging church growth;
- resourcing engagement with issues of social justice and public debate, and promoting social cohesion;
- sustaining and developing work in education, lifelong learning and discipleship;
- supporting the maintenance and development of the Church’s built heritage;
- supporting and promoting the Church’s liturgy and forms of worship;
- supporting the Church’s ecumenical engagement both nationally and internationally;
- promoting the Church’s understanding of itself through research and statistical analysis;
- supporting the Church’s main debating and decision making bodies;
- strengthening the institutional effectiveness of the Church by promoting good governance.
The most striking thing for me out of these is the frequency with which collaborative terms are used—supporting, developing, resourcing, working with. It was very evident in the meeting that most of what we discussed depended for its implementation on mutual respect and understanding—and shared vision—between the Council and other parts of the Church. When looking at the ‘Resourcing the Future’ funding (a redirection of Church Commissioners’ money into areas of mission, growth and opportunity) the question came up as to how anyone would know whether this money had been well spent. The persistent answer was ‘Whether the dioceses, parishes and individuals had made good use of it’. In other words, it was entirely collaborative.
But there is another direction to look in thinking about whether power is concentrated too much in one place. Part of this is historical: it is hard to overstate how dysfunctional and incoherent the Church of England has been in the past. Not much more than 100 years ago, bishops were taking each other to court! But even 20 years ago, dioceses were not talking either to other dioceses or to ‘the centre’ about the financial situation they were in.
The other part of this is organisational. The basic organisational unit of the Church is the diocese; I don’t think this has any theological rationale (and I had a couple of interesting conversations with bishops about that over the couple of days!) but it does appear to make practical sense for many aspects of the Church’s life. Yet we live in an age when technology means it is far more sensible to collaborate nationally on practical issues (such as use of information and IT) and in a media age some things can only be handled nationally. The organisational autonomy that bishops and dioceses enjoy needs to be ameliorated by a commitment to shared working if we are going to be effective as a national Church.
Even within central and national institutions, there is some debate about where authority and decision-making power lies. It has been said that the Church is ‘episcopally led and synodically governed’ but at least one senior bishop has contested that in the past, arguing that the Church is ‘episcopally led and governed and synodically administered’. One rather bizarre organisational reality is that the subcommittees of the Archbishops’ Council have members elected by Synod; not only are these members not required to adhere to the goals of AC or the committee, at times they are elected because they disagree with the goals, and so spend their time ‘managing upwards’ in a ‘Yes, Minister’ attempt to change the agenda.
As an example of the potential of collaboration, our first item of business on Thursday was the question of evangelism amongst students. We noticed what potential was there, how important this had been in the past, how many different agencies were working in this area—but also how often different groups were working to their own agendas either without reference to one another or even in active competition. What would happen if such groups were resourced, encouraged and in conversation? And where else could consideration of this take place?
So for anyone concerned that AC has too much power, it seems to me that there are only two alternatives. The first is that the Church goes back to an uncoordinated way of operating, so that different interest groups and dioceses do their own thing in an uncoordinated way. The second is that there is some coordinating centre, but it is defined and constituted differently. Yet any such body needs to relate to the leadership of the House of Bishops (i.e. the Archbishops) and needs to have representation from other key bodies—which AC of course has. So it is rather difficult to imagine a body very different from the one we have.
Does anyone out there want to make the case for option 1?
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